Home > The New Media, Web/Tech > Digital Archaeology at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World: What I Learned

Digital Archaeology at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World: What I Learned

Tuesdays Digital Archaeology meeting at ISAW was fantastic and Tom Elliott and Roger Bagnall should be commended for their commitment to creating room for open discussion about crucial matters of digital publication in archaeology.  One of the key metaphors of the day was “the carrot and stick”.  This phrase referred to the need to encourage and require projects to release their digital data.  And much of discussion consider the various carrot aspects and stick consequences as related to digital publication of archaeological data.  To my great relief, the carrots of opportunity far outweighed, the stick of necessity!

I learned a good bit listening to colleagues who have struggled over crucial issues in digital archaeology for the past decade.  Below I offer a some of the key points that made an impact on how I think about digital archaeology (and these points do not reflect necessarily the scope or priorities of the meeting):

1. The Digital Future is Now.  The number of people deeply committed to digitizing legacy data from across the archaeological world was truly remarkable.  More importantly, it is clear that major digitization projects currently underway will have a significant impact on the availability of archaeological data in a digital format in the very near future.  Moreover, the group assembled at ISAW this past week seemed to agree in large part concerning the most pressing and significant issues surrounding archaeological data management.  The solutions that each project or team provided varied, but the overarching priorities seemed securely established.  In short, many of the old objections to the digital distribution of archaeological data are now entirely resolved.  Variable security levels can limit access to material under investigation and analysis, customized systems preserve idiosyncratic data integrity and secure backups protect data from loss.

2.  The Gap between the Coding and Non-Coding Archaeologist. The day has arrived when any serious, large-scale archaeological project needs a data plan.  This data plan will almost always require a deliberate and sophisticated approach to processing data from its collection in the field to its dissemination among team members to its final (ideally digital) publication.  In many cases, the entire process will depend upon a custom build application or interface.  The funding levels necessary to make it possible to have the services of coding archaeologist to produce customized interfaces are likely limited to larger projects with substantial institutional support.   The number of archaeologists working on serious, custom applications and interfaces to maximize specialized access to their data was remarkable.  This leaves smaller projects, which have the same responsibilities to to work toward converting legacy data and to preserve and publish born-digital data, in a potentially exposed position.  What makes this all the more pressing is that so much archaeological data of all kinds, is produced or bound up in smaller projects.  The days of the “big dig” are nearly over.  Small, focused, and relatively efficient field projects have emerged in its place and, importantly, produce data that can benefit significantly from comparison with other small scale projects.  The key now will be to encourage small projects to share data in such a way as to multiply the significance of their conclusions.

3. Aggregated Data.  The potential for comparisons across large-scale aggregated data sets were hardly a priority at this meeting and the reasons seem to be (1) that most data sets are simply too idiosyncratic to compare in a simple or automated way and (2) the drive to aggregate various data sets has to come from specific research questions: for example, kinds of aggregated data can shed light on problems imagined at the regional level or emphasize some aspect of Mediterranean trade.  That being said, there seemed to be a broad consensus that that the current wave of digital publications have emphasized the production of data structures that allows the end users a tremendous amount of flexibility in arranging data.  So the creation of data to be compared across projects, sites, or even regions, needs not be an exclusive concern for the data producer, but, in fact, depend more heavily on the savvy and tools available to the end user.  The data producer merely has to present the data in a way that is accessible to various third party applications (like Google Earth) through which the data can be mined and queried by the end user.

4. Institutional Thinking.  It’s interesting to see how many institutions participate in the impetus behind the creating of digital data.  The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, The Archaeological Institute of America, the University of Cincinnati, the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, are all major players in the universe of Mediterranean Archaeology and all were represented at the meeting.  It is clear that issues of digital data in archaeology are being conceived on the trans-institutional level.  This not only reflects the serious commitment of resources (especially during difficult economic times), but the development of the kind of decentralized infrastructure for digital archaeology that could spur innovation as different groups work toward common goals from different perspectives. 

There were only a few things at the meeting that I’d have liked to have heard more about.  First, is digital workflow in the field.  I have this dream where our data can be produced in the field with solid validations rules and disseminated in almost real time to collaborators around the world.  This instant digital publication would streamline the final publication of data and save time on the tedious “post-production” work of data managing in the off season.  It’s clear that some projects are better at this than others, and I just wanted to understand how and why.  The other thing that I would have liked to learn more about is how projects are dealing with the potential of the new media.  Most of the discussion centered on “old media” — drawings, plans, photographs, notebooks, and the like — and tended to deal with new media the same way (i.e. our systems can accommodate video, audio, or whatever).  This is a particular concern for our work which brings in more video and audio than many projects, but it would presumably have applicability for any project with an ethnographic or reflexive component to their research.

Categories: The New Media, Web/Tech
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: